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Rick Prosko
“When we go from one farm to another, we’re talking to real people with real problems, and we usually come up with some good ideas,” says Rick Prosko of Saskatchewan.

Peer groups: A fast track to better management

Ramp up business skills by connecting with other farmers and sharing what works in your operation.

It’s a formula we’ve used in the farm magazine business for years: If you want your story to have credibility, let a farmer tell it.

Farmers always seem to pay attention when another farmer is sharing his or her real-world experience. That’s what some farmers are doing now when they participate in peer groups as a way to ramp up management skills.

These small groups — usually no more than 10 farm families from different regions with similar-sized operations — are learning how to be better managers by sharing what they know with other farmers in an information sharing program called Executive Farmer Network.

“We’re always looking for new ideas and knowledge, because there are always issues on the farm that you’re trying to solve,” says Rick Prosko, whose family grows canola and oats near Rose Valley, Saskatchewan.

Prosko’s peer group has just seven farms, spread out from Canada to Alabama. “For me it’s more appealing to have people from all over,” he says. ”The farther you look, the more you gain.”

The last frontier
Tim Schaefer, owner at Encore Consulting and Prosko’s peer group facilitator, says management is the last frontier for farmers who strive to become the best in the business.

“Management practices are a major key to future success,” he says. “Farmers who want to scale up farms need to develop not only technical practices, but also management practices.”

Farmers interested in a group need to make a commitment to travel to other farms and be open to discussion. In a peer group everything gets shared — what works, what doesn’t and why. Trust is key.

“If you’re going to get the secret sauce from other great managers, you have to be able to talk about just about anything in the group,” says Schaefer.

In Prosko’s group, farmers meet on farms twice a year and do three conference calls annually. Once on a farm, everyone joins in one-on-one interviews with key players from the farm they visit. Over three days, the group may discuss farm growth, family dynamics and debt management, as well as how to communicate with employees, how to improve financial recordkeeping or how to bring a younger manager into the business. Members of the peer group make recommendations.

Each farmer has a written task to accomplish within six months. They share why it’s important to their business, and what actions they will take to accomplish the task. Then, the peer group does a follow-up to ensure those ideas are put into action. That way every person in the group is accountable to each other. “In effect, this is a case study of your business,” says Schaefer. “You go to a meeting to get base knowledge, but in a peer group you talk about how to actually implement.”

Personality profile test
Participants get a personality profile test to help them find better ways to communicate with employees. These are “soft” social skills, something many farmers had never thought about until their business began to grow and they found themselves working with multiple family members and employees. “The profile helps them to become self-aware,” says Schaefer.

Facilitators will vet each group so they are similar in size and expertise, but not necessarily the same enterprises. They try to put people together who are facing similar challenges, but perhaps at different stages. “It works really well when you have more than one generation coming to the meetings,” says Schaefer. “We had one farmer who nearly lost it all in the ’80s; his perspective on risk is very valuable to share with a farmer in his 30s.”

The facilitator is not there to teach, but to build trust and draw out the opinions of the farmers. “Farmers are really good at helping other farmers,” he says. “This is not about the facilitator’s knowledge; it’s about farmers teaching each other what works and what does not work.”

When Prosko joined, he was driven mostly by curiosity on how his farm stacked up against others. He quickly began to form specific goals. The first was how to integrate the next generation into the farm. The second was how to retain employees. “You absolutely have to be honest about how things are going on your farm,” he says.

Only a year and a half into the process, Prosko has already seen minds changed. “On one farm we visited, the owners’ sons were going to the peer group, and the owners weren’t initially in favor of it. But once we were there three days, they were quite moved by the suggestions we had, and saw the sincerity of the group. They changed completely. We’re not the cops. We’re there for one reason; that’s to help.”

For Prosko, just seeing other farms and learning what has worked for that farm is a big benefit. “We may come up with ideas during a farm visit, but it’s up to the farmer to adopt them. What it does, it gets the dialogue going on that farm, for whatever issues they might be having. How they actually address it is their business.”

Improved business functions
Kyle Bridgeforth, who farms in Alabama with dad Bill, Uncle Greg, cousin Lamont and brother Carlton, is also involved in the same group as Prosko. They were drawn to the idea to improve business functions.

“We were looking to benchmark our business against other farms of similar size,” says Bridgeforth. He’s been able to compare his farm’s financials, equipment and employee management figures with group averages.

“This really helps with communication within your own business,” he adds. “When other farms review your farm, it can be unnerving, but everyone’s end goal is to make you a better business.

“We’ve learned a lot from other farmers about cost-savings, human resources and succession planning. It’s great to see how it works on other farms and it gives us confidence in the strategies we’re using now.”

Bridgeforth adds one word of caution: Be sure to have an open mind as you enter a peer group. Participants are expected to fully expose every aspect of their operation.

“Set some goals on what you want to get out of the experience, beforehand,” he says. “That way you’ll see how productive the peer group is. You have several other farms that can bring in new ideas, but having goals laid out in advance really helps to focus the conversations.”

Ready for A peer group?
Interested in a peer group? Besides the annual fee, you’ll need a time commitment and an interest in learning new ways to run your business. Consider joining one if:

  • you believe you need to manage better
  • you can get away from the farm at least twice a year for two to three days
  • you have an open mind and are willing to learn
  • you can trust and be trusted
  • you are open to sharing and receiving feedback
  • you see yourself as more than a technician and want to improve your leadership

Tim Schaefer has been a peer group facilitator since 2012, as well as a business coach and expert in transition planning. Farm Futures is collaborating with Schaefer and his company, Encore Consulting, to put together farmer peer groups. Visit encore-consultants.net/peer-groups, or email mike.wilson@penton.com.

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